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Monday, February 18, 2008

Excitement, Trepidation in Columbia City

posted by on February 18 at 18:53 PM

Last Friday, the city’s landmarks preservation board met to discuss a new mixed-used development in Columbia City, currently the site of the Columbia Plaza shopping center and its sea of parking spaces. As it turns out, Columbia Plaza sits smack in the middle of the Columbia City Historic District… although you’d never guess it from looking at the site:

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Because of the landmark designation (of the site, not the building), the redevelopment is subject to landmark review; as such, it has to follow the landmark preservation board’s criteria. Among them: Maintaining the “self-contained, small-town quality” of downtown Columbia City; encouraging a mix of uses; and being a size “consistent with the massing of existing historic buildings.”

That last one is where the project could run into problems. The massing plans presented by Dana Behar of HAL Real Estate Investments and Ed Weinstein of architecture firm Weinstein EU showed one or more six-story residential buildings with retail on the ground level facing Rainier and Edmonds—a smaller street that runs perpendicular to Rainier down to the planned light rail station at MLK. The buildings would probably cluster around a central courtyard.

Residents of the neighborhood have expressed alarm at the scale of the developments planned for the area, several of them similar in size and scale to the Columbia Plaza proposal. “The neighborhood does hope and pray that you’ll build to a 40-foot height limit,” resident Chris Osborne said. Residents have been similarly perturbed over plans by developer Harbor Properties (which did the Harbor Steps project downtown) to redevelop an old plastics warehouse at the corner of Rainier and Hudson, on the south end of the historic district, into a 375-unit condo complex six stories high.

While I’m sympathetic to concerns about preserving the historic district (as my coworkers know, I even think they should preserve the Ballard Denny’s), that isn’t what’s at stake here. What is at stake is an ugly plastics warehouse and an uglier parking lot that fronts on a small mall selling hip-hop clothes and cigarettes—both of which are available at many other places in the neighborhood. Both sites are underutilized (Columbia Plaza turns its back on a park that’s a crime hot spot for the area) and would benefit tremendously from new housing. What’s more, the teams associated with both the projects have a history of making developments fit in with the neighborhoods where they’re located. For example, Weinstein AU designed the Agnes Lofts at 12th and Pike…


… the award-winning downtown Banner Building:


… and a bunch of proposed developments around the city, images of which you can find at their insanely over-Flash-enhanced web site.

As Weinstein told the landmarks board, “We’re looking to do authentic buildings that are appropriate only for their sites and their circumstances.” That ought to be exciting news for Columbia City residents—not cause for chagrin.

And speaking of exciting news… Weinstein mentioned something I was not aware of: The city has preliminary plans to put Rainier Ave. South between Rainier Beach and Alaska Street on a “road diet,” reducing traffic to one lane in each direction. Given that the city’s action on accident-prone Rainier (1,743 collisions between 2002 and 2004 alone) has so far consisted of billboards (because what better way to improve driver safety than encouraging drivers to take their eyes off the road?), that’s a promising rumor indeed.

RSS icon Comments


Lose Columbia Plaza (honestly, we have enough stores that sell doo-rags) but save that taco truck!

Posted by Toolio | February 18, 2008 6:59 PM

Build 6 stories and shut the fuck up assholes.

NOT a big deal.

Posted by Cale | February 18, 2008 7:01 PM

taller is better.

it also allows a nicer building with bigger setbacks instead of a bulky box design.

Posted by unPC | February 18, 2008 7:04 PM

Adding two floors to this building will have NO effect on regional growth management, but WILL violate the code and alter the character of a historic district. Oh, but the developers will get to make a few more bucks, too. BFD.

And "Road Diets" on major arterials are just plain stupid.

Posted by Mr. X | February 18, 2008 7:21 PM

Both of your photographs highlight the architectural design of the building but obscure the thing the neighborhood should be most concerned about: what's happening at the street level.

They should compromise by allowing a taller building -- five stories -- but forcing a requirement for narrow, block-depth ground floor retail flush with the lot. By "block-depth" I mean the spaces should not be built to the fraudulent new standard that's barely deep enough to put a counter in, with no back room possible, but as deep into the building as the older retail buildings in that stretch, like the one the Wellington is in.

I'm not anticipating much, though. The art of building retail strips, which was second nature to even the worst developer in the 1920s, has been lost to us today. If you don't want a Subway and three nail salons there, don't design for them. Too bad Weinstein will probably be forced to.

Posted by Fnarf | February 18, 2008 7:42 PM

city of seattle would do well to increase allowable heights through rainier valley and columbia shitty.

and while the banner is a bad ripoff of olson walker's pike & virginia

the agnes looks very nice and ed's been on a roll the last few years.

Posted by holz | February 18, 2008 7:53 PM

Height is a bogus argument. Fnarf's point is the accurate one. Street level retail design is where it's at in terms of creating good, vibrant strips.

On a recent trip up to Vancouver I was struck by the fact that along Commercial Drive there is hardly a building taller than four floors. And most are just two.

Similarly, along Robson St. the vast majority of buildings are between two and four floors. Same is true along Granville.

And many of the stores along these strips are tiny.

Posted by gnossos | February 18, 2008 8:45 PM

He changed "city" to "shitty"


Posted by Hah | February 18, 2008 9:23 PM


in vancouver, you can also go 4 or 5 blocks off robson, and it's stell 4+ stories w/ retail other than star*ucks and subway.

i agree that quality ground floor retail (as well as professional office space) is desperately needed, but a lot of the zoning through rainier ave is not adequate for developers to get the no. of units needed to make ends meet for anything other than shitty shell t.i.'s for starbucks, papajohns and the like.

Posted by holz | February 18, 2008 9:34 PM

Believe me, there's plenty of bad residential going into Columbia City, but ANYTHING will be an improvement over Columbia Plaza. What a dump. Same goes for that ugly B of A branch.

And Columbia City is not shitty. And I'm all for a Rainier Ave diet. People drive like assholes on Rainier. Move 'em over to MLK.

Posted by catalina vel-duray | February 18, 2008 10:47 PM

Hmmm, yeah all the pics you put up really show some depth of their neighborhood (as long as the neighborhood involves lots of tall new-age condos).

This site has incredible potential: the heart of columbia city, central to many south seattle attractions, and near the light rail line. I certainly hope (but wont hold my breath) for at least some pretty public space involved with this site.

I will give the Harbor Company props for the steps. Once the Viaduct goes (which it will dammit!) and Post Alley is all linked up that will be an amazingly vibrant and pretty area.

Posted by Josh Mahar | February 19, 2008 12:57 AM

I don't know when the Stranger drank the pro-developer Kool-Aid, but neither of your pet examples fit their neighborhoods, asthetically, or in terms of scale.

Of course, when everything adjacent has been pulled down and replaced, those will look pretty good. But they don't fit their neighborhood as is.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | February 19, 2008 8:31 AM

I live not far from there.

If we don't maximize the number of people that live near the light rail station, we're throwing away a once-in-a-century opportunity to maximize transit-oriented-development and transit use.

Let'em build as high as they want!

Posted by MHD | February 19, 2008 11:46 AM

For more information on transportation improvements planned for the southeast district of Seattle, see the draft SETS report.

It's a big file, but very easy to read once you download. Filled with graphics.

Posted by wren | February 19, 2008 12:23 PM

Both projects should be good for business in the neighborhood, get over it....there is development going in all over the City..can you name a neighborhood that doesn't have a crane?

Posted by Greengal | February 19, 2008 3:34 PM

I also live in Columbia City, and in classic Seattle form, I say: You're both right!

Let them build to 6 stories, with a minimum of parking


Hold them to a higher standard in terms of how the buildings interact with the street.

We need more people in the neighborhood, and we also need more walkable streets, extending the downtown CC area north and south and to the light rail station...

Posted by CCity Resident | February 19, 2008 6:10 PM

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